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May 26, 2020

Responding To: China in the U.S. Presidential Election

The U.S. and China: Deep Mistrust Amid the U.S. Presidential Campaign

E.J. Dionne, Jr., Jia Qingguo, Laura Silver, Michael Green

Laura Silver

Here are some key findings from the Pew Survey conducted in March 2020.

-- Two-thirds of Americans have an unfavorable view of China.

-- Unfavorable opinion of China has gone up nearly 20 percentage points since the beginning of the Trump administration.

-- 72% of Republicans or independents who lean toward the Republican Party have an unfavorable view of China compared to 62% of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party.

-- Since the beginning of the Trump administration, we've seen the percentage of people naming China as a major threat go up nearly 20 points.

E.J. Dionne

If you look at most polling in the United States right now, on issue after issue, the gap between Democrats and Republicans is a chasm -- thirty, forty, fifty points. What I find significant about the data is that there's only a ten-point gap between Republicans and Democrats in attitudes toward China. I think this suggests a hardening of views on China across the board.

I see at least three issues that will continue to harden opinion in the United States toward China. The first is Hong Kong, a topic that received a lot more attention before the virus. Every bit of news about the repression of the democratic forces in Hong Kong is going to harden U.S. positions. The second is the treatment of the Uyghurs. And the third is the increasing centralization of power in President Xi's hands. Those who were looking two decades ago to an improvement in relations argued that with time, the fact that China was becoming more of a market economy would produce a more pluralistic political system. A lot of people who made those arguments have had to back away from them or to acknowledge outright that they were wrong.

Jia Qingguo

Given consensus in Washington on the question of getting tough with China, things are moving in the wrong direction for China-US relations. When you look at the current presidential election campaign, one irony is that normally the opposition party candidate would condemn the incumbent party government for being too soft on China. In this case, it's quite interesting that the incumbent Trump administration is trying to attack the opposition party candidate for being too soft on China. And the Biden campaign is basically saying: you are no better. The difference is about the tactics -- not whether to be tough on China, but how.

Why have things developed this way? There are many reasons. One is the South China and East China sea issue, which hardened the view of those people who want to contain China anyway. Basically, they are saying, look, China is expansionist. We have to be tough on China. Then there is the general disappointment of those who had hoped that as China grows economically and engages with the rest of the world, the country will become more liberal if not democratic.

Michael Green

I think the differences between moderate conservatives and conservative Democrats, on the one hand, and more hawkish conservatives on the other, is that the hawkish conservatives, the most maybe extreme example being Steve Bannon, do not think there's any hope for U.S.-China relations and view it sort of like Japan or Germany in the 1930s. The moderate conservatives and conservative Democrats think, yes, we have to be tough, but that's to get us back to a better equilibrium, a place where we can have a more constructive relationship.

Jia Qingguo

A lot of Americans were supportive of engagement during the Obama administration. Now, just a few years later, very few people are supporting engagement, at least, in public. So it's a very short, very quick shift. Everything China does is now viewed from a negative perspective. Even people-to-people exchange is viewed from a negative lens, with the argument that Chinese scholars and students are suspected of espionage, and that visas have to be controlled. This makes a lot of universities, and of course, a lot of Chinese students and scholars very upset. The atmosphere is poisoned.

E.J. Dionne

We should keep in mind that views of China have changed because of very concrete events on the ground in China and around the world. Perhaps the important thing in terms of mass opinion has been a change in the attitude towards China's economic opening. Liberals were disappointed because, rather than leading to a broad liberalization of China, what seems to have happened instead is a hardening of the authoritarian regime. And then there's the question of the economic impact of trade with China. The Trump election brought this home. Trump picked up votes in the Midwest, the region that won him the Electoral College, and flight of industrial jobs to China hurt that part of the country especially hard. And this is an issue that doesn’t just animate Trump; it affects opinions among Democrats as well.

Michael Green

Previous administrations have often come in with tough rhetoric on China that softened over time. Ronald Reagan, for example, campaigned on a promise to renormalize relations with Taiwan and criticized Jimmy Carter for normalizing relations with the People's Republic of China. Bill Clinton ran on a promise not to, as he put it, coddle the butchers of Beijing after Tiananmen. I worked for President George W. Bush in the White House for five years running Asian policy. Bush said during the campaign that China is not a strategic partner. They're a strategic competitor.

But in each of these previous examples, while U.S.-China relations were uncertain for a period of time, after about one or two years, each of those presidents, once they were elected and in office, moved forward U.S.-China relation achieving new heights. Bill Clinton, for example, brought China into the WTO. George Bush and Hu Jintao had a close dialogue on a range of complicated issues, like North Korea. And the Chinese side took the incoming political fire and were patient and rebuilt the relationship. This time feels different. The public opinion about China is much worse. The bipartisan consensus that we have a serious strategic problem with China is more expansive, and Beijing's own stance is much more assertive or less patient about American criticism.

Jia Qingguo

Keep in mind that the views of the public in China on the U.S. have also been deteriorating -- probably equally if not more. Most Chinese think that criticism of China is not about specific policies, that it's about undermining China, containing China, destroying China's prospect of development. Increasingly people are frustrated and angry. Even among the so-called experts or elites, I think this view is growing. So, basically, hardliners on both sides create this dynamic of getting tough on each other and forcing the relationship into a downward spiral.

The reason why Chinese people are becoming more and more frustrated, has a lot to do with the Trump administration's approach. At the beginning, when Trump was trying to get a deal with China, many people in China thought, this is good. Why? Because we need some external pressure for launching domestic reforms. But then, they realized it's not just about pushing China to make economic reforms. It's about many other things. Basically, the Trump administration, at least some people in the Trump administration, are trying to demonize and contain China.

E.J. Dionne

I think it would be a big mistake for China to take a few of the most extreme statements by the Trump administration and to think they can rally Americans against that kind of language. The change in American opinion on China is real. It goes much deeper than the Trump administration. It is not about destroying China's economic prospects. It is a reaction to a series of developments in China and around the world. There is a reaction as well among business people who feel China’s approach to them has become exploitative. These include business people were friends of this relationship.

So I think it would be a a grave mistake for China to think the cooling or hardening of attitudes is confined to President Trump or his administration. This is something that runs rather deep right now in American politics, and that if China escalates in places like Hong Kong against the democratic forces, it's only going to make this even worse Most Americans would love nothing more than to see China evolve as a system and become more democratic. And a more democratic China would be a China that the United States would be happy to work with. What we see is the evolution going the other way, and that's very alarming.

Jia Qingguo

I agree it's not just about the Trump administration. When the Congress passes Taiwan Travel Act and other legislation that Chinese believe is anti-China, it's either unanimously or with a big majority. This shows how negative the views on the part of the people in Washington on China. That's making Chinese more frustrated because it's not just the U.S. administration's policy. It's about Washington. It's more frustrating because you don't see any hope for more pragmatic policies or behavior on the part of Washington. When I say the relationship is moving toward confrontation, all-out confrontation, I'm not exaggerating it. I'm also very worried about it.

Let's take the example of technology. The United States is trying to block Huawei not only in the United States but also in other markets all over the world saying that Huawei is a security risk. But the problem is that those countries studied Huawei's technologies. And they decided that they would use select parts of Huawei's technologies which are not a security problem. But then the United States tells them they are not supposed to do business with Huawei and other Chinese high-tech companies because they are helping the Communist Party. This is what I mean when I say this is not just about management of the relationship. It's about containment.

E.J. Dionne

But there is a broader issue here. A more authoritarian China is seen as representing much more of a threat to American values and American interests. I don't think that even the most hawkish people in the United States are trying to destroy China. But they are very worried about the fruits of the policy that we have pursued up to now because they were looking forward to a somewhat different kind of China that might actually be more cooperative with the United States in the future. The example of the Belt and Road Initiative raises the question: Is China trying to push out American influence in other places?

Jia Qingguo

The Belt and Road is not an attempt to get rid of the American influence. It's an attempt to launch another stage of China's economic development in collaboration with international partners, to create a market for China's excessive capital technology and managerial skills. Of course, at the same time it's a way to secure raw materials, markets and other kinds of economic benefit. But viewed from the U.S. administration, it's sort of a Chinese attempt on the basis of a grand strategy to dominate the world, to get rid of the U.S. leadership. That's not true. China tried to solicit the United States to join the Belt and Road Initiative, to work together. Actually, China is working together with Japan on collaborative infrastructure projects. While the Japanese do not say they are not joining Belt and Road due to U.S. objections, they say they are working with China as part of their own Indo-Pacific strategy. China would like Chinese companies to collaborate with American companies as well.

Ultimately, the future development of the relationship depends on the gradual realization on the part of people in Washington that they have to face the reality that China is a large country. It is a stakeholder with vested interest in the existing international order. It's not a revolutionary power trying to overthrow this order. As stakeholders, China and the United States have a lot of shared interests and stakes in working together. To be tough on China on specific issues, that's fine. But to take a confrontational approach, this is not in the U.S. interest. Of course, it's not in China's interest, either. So, ultimately, I think this kind of realization will happen. I hope it will happen sooner than later.